Not recommended for the racially sensitive, Singapore-born and Perth-based soul singer, Nicholette Chew, charmed Fringe-goers with her debut cabaret-style exposé, Diary of a Racially Confused Girl. The musical show took the audience on a personal journey of discovering Chew’s identity amidst racial stereotypes, while growing up in a middle class South-East Asian family in Perth.
Chew and her six-piece band, including expert traditional Chinese instrument players, hammed it up in bright red Chinese New Year uniforms, showing the Ellington Jazz Club audience of predominantly Asian background (roughly 60 per cent of the sold-out venue) that her offering was not to be taken too seriously, and just a bit of fun. Given the huge success of Hollywood blockbuster film, Crazy Rich Asians, Chew was wise to ride on the coattails of the resurgence in worldwide popularity for Asian stand-up comedy.
Many in the audience seemed to empathise with her cross-cultural experiences and faux pas, as there were fits of laughter when Chew told stories from her past such as her huge disappointment with having to eat sandwiches out of a lunch box in a Perth high school after getting used to the smorgasbord of foodie choices at a school canteen in Singapore. She bemoaned the woes of being ‘not a real Asian’ by some on the one hand, while being deemed ‘too Asian’ by others.
A definite highlight of the show, Chew endeared herself to the audience when she spoke of her hilarious Tinder dating exploits with men who had a serious case of ‘yellow fever’, in spite of her red-faced embarrassment that her parents were in the audience. She unabashedly poked fun at herself as she confessed her obsession with ‘Blasian’ babies and desire to find a future husband of African-American descent. The show moved at a natural pace and Chew skillfully threw in a few improvised jokes where appropriate.
Chew’s great voice, musical chops and natural comedic timing were evident in her ability to confidently belt out challenging pop tunes such as (You Make Me Feel Like) I’m So Damn Asian, sung to the tune of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman by Carole King or Singapore, sung to the tune of New York by Alicia Keys. The musicians who accompanied her were expert in their delivery and pop solos by the traditional Chinese instrument players such as the Yangqin or Chinese dulcimer were a pleasant surprise on the night.
While her versions of pop songs were mostly met with cheers and laughter, a few musical jokes fell slightly flat, such as part of the lyrics of If I Were A White (sung to Beyonce’s If I Were A Boy), bemoaning always being asked where she’s from in spite of the strong possibility that she could be born in Australia. With her frequent references to South East Asian food dishes, some audience members who were not familiar with that culture may have missed some of the jokes, however that was a risk that Chew was rightfully willing to take.
In spite of a few slight lulls in the performance, Chew powered through her set with charismatic and confident delivery, while taking comedic risks to challenge racial stereotypes in her debut offering. She kept the crowd engaged with good storytelling, and entertained with some audience participation through to the end of the hour-long show. Diary of a Racially Confused Girl was a strong FRINGE WORLD debut and hopefully Chew will return and continue to develop her comedic and musical skills, and amuse us with her brand of sassy ‘racially-confused’ musical comedy.
Photos by Jyson Tai